Ox, Ox, Ox

Before leaving, Val’s mother went to her room, kissed her twice on the cheeks, and once on the forehead. Call me if you need something, she said, brushing her daughter’s tight curls with her fingertips, anything. Val groaned. I’m not dying, she argued, but only received more kisses in return. I only broke a couple of bones.

Telling her licensed practical nurse of a mother nothing bad would happen was a herculean feat, and every time Val opened her mouth, she had to hear again all the things that could kill her in the next few hours, from fevers to a cardiac arrest caused by a rare side effect in her medication.

No SMSing unless it’s important! Her mom declared before closing the door, leaving Val alone in their tiny apartment.

Without her, the place looked even smaller. The main bedroom, where her parents slept, with its unpainted wooden door wide open; the bathroom with a plastic faucet, the broken mirror nobody ever bothered to fix, the toilet with a matching cover and contour rug made of crochet, complete with a large red flower sewn into it; her own bedroom with posters in the walls; the living room and the kitchen; the entrance door with a painting of Our Lady of Aparecida, saying “THIS HOUSE IS BLESSED BY GOD” along with a house-shaped key holder.

No SMSing,” Val repeated in a high-pitched voice, crawling through the bed on her elbows and knees. The lower half of her left leg was covered with plaster, her arms had three wound dressings, and two of the fingers of her right hand were immobilized in a splint, so Val had to hop in one leg to reach her computer. “Fine.”

Mom would only be back in the next morning, and dad had left the day before for his work trip, so she had countless hours of boredom ahead. The screen lightened up to show the cover of Nightwish’s fourth album, Century Child, and MSN signed in automatically.

Three chat windows popped up:

_________camies 🥀 (29 days) says:

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE??? GO REST

{Lord Erick} says:

Hey =) your new pic looks great. Feeling any better?

xxx Lucas xxx says:

did you even sleep today? XD

In a normal day, she would answer it all in a matter of a second, typing so swiftly the black nail polish would look like a blur over the keyboard. Without the middle and index fingers of her dominant hand, however, Val had to do an effort to type with her right thumb and her unscathed left hand.

_________lady turunen (29 days) says:

if i stay one more second in that bed, i will literally die, camila

_________camies 🥀 (29 days) says:

DON’T CALL ME LIKE THAT

_________lady turunen (29 days) says:

help me answer erick instead of complaining

he said he likes my new icon, do you think that means something? <333

_________camies 🥀 (29 days) is typing…

The doorbell interrupted her before she could continue, and she left the mouse aside, trying to ignore the tabs blinking orange and blue, orange and blue. Val limped to the living room to open the door, and an elderly woman smiled at her.

“Alone again?”

“Yes, Ms. Teresa,” Val answered dully, trying to smile back. Ms. Teresa looked at her long nails for what felt like an eternity, and then shifted the focus to analyze the full hair over her shoulders, its purple dye almost wearing out. “Mom asked you to come over?”

“She did, she did,” nodded Ms. Teresa. Her beady eyes stopped at the fingerless fishnet gloves covering her wrists and the pentagram necklace hanging outside of her blouse. Val rolled eyes. “Don’t make that face, boy! Your mom just wanted to make sure that you would eat. Can I come in?”

Go away, she thought, watching as Ms. Tereza entered her house without waiting for an answer, go away. Val stared at the floor while the woman put a large glass dish full of chicken escondidinho on the table, and served her a generous portion on a Duralex plate.

“Thanks.”

“Remember to eat everything, and intercom me if you need any help.” Ms. Tereza kissed her cheek. “And try not to sleep so late. Resting is always the best medicine.”

It was three in the morning, and all of her friends were already offline. Erick was the first to leave—at seventeen, he was the oldest of them by two years, and he would finish high school in a couple of months. Then it was Lucas, claiming he was too tired to continue. I don’t know how you do this, he had typed, I feel like I’m gonna pass out T_T. Camila stayed a bit longer, but her dad eventually woke up and forced her to log off.

Yet Val didn’t want to sleep. Her body begged for it, reminding her of every way she was sore, but she refused to listen. She tried to find a movie to watch, but the download was taking forever to finish; she tried to play solitaire, but she wasn’t good at it; she tried to find herself one last biscuit, but not even eating helped.

With a sigh, Val turned off the computer and took off her clothes. She removed the black eyeliner, folded her Epica t-shirt, slipped into a shirt that was four sizes too big, and tied her hair in a loose bun on the top of her head.

Sleep, she thought, lying down and repeating the word like a mantra. Her leg was not comfortable in any position, and her fingers rested stiffly on her belly. Nothing will happen. You’re safe. Sleep.

It didn’t take long for her vision to lose focus and her body to relax despite the discomfort of her broken bones. Val yawned, feeling like she was sinking into the ocean, her limbs weighing like stones, her lungs filled with warm liquid, her conscience slowly fading away. But she was there—still there, still there—and she tried to swim back to the surface and open her eyes.

When she did, she found herself in her bedroom, hearing the clock ticking in the nightstand. Everything looked the same, two posters of Nightwish, one of Within Temptation, another of Sleepy Hollow, the computer, the desk. And, by the door, the shape of an animal glowering at her.

Not again, Val thought, her brown eyes wide open. She didn’t need to look any longer, she knew what it was: an ox, mostly white, partly black, its prominent hump standing over its shoulders, its down-turned horns pointing toward the floor.

Every centimeter of her body refused to move. From her feet that felt chained to the bed, to her legs that could have been pierced by imaginary claws. Her arms were immobile and dead, her lips were sewn, and the only part of her that still reacted was her chest, up and down, up and down.

The ox continued there, its substantial shadow blocking the door. It will start now, Val thought, trying to close her eyes, at any point now. And when it did, a long bellow was heard, ringing, demanding, consuming the room like the honk of a car. He breathed heavily, drooling, huffing, mooing.

Val whimpered, please let me sleep, please let me sleep, and her arm twitched. One of her fingers, the right index in the splint, trembled, cracked, fighting against the pain.

The ox pawed the ground.

Slowly, she regained control of her limbs, and jumped out of the bed. The clock still ticked, but the room was not the same as the moment before. Stripes of sunlight illuminated the floor, her mother prepared coffee in the kitchen, and the ox was gone.

“An ox?” Lucas asked, sitting cross-legged on her bed. Dark straight hair covered his eyes in an awkward fringe, and his tawny skin was only a bit lighter than hers. “Like the black-faced ox?”

Val slapped her own forehead.

“Not like that! More like a zebu. Except that instead of being all white, he has a black face and black legs.”

“Animals have legs or paws?” Lucas stuffed his mouth with sweet popcorn, and offered her a handful of it. Her friends had decided to pay her a visit on Saturday, and the smell of caramel and salt filled the room.

“I don’t know.” Val sat on the desk chair, looking at the DVDs they brought with them, all from the rental store around the corner: Final Destination 2, Phantom of the Opera, Corpse Bride… “I’ve had the same dream for years, but this time he was about to strike me.”

“Maybe it’s sleep paralysis,” suggested Erick. He was leaning against the window close to her, one hand holding a cigarette, the other close to hers. “My sister has it sometimes.”

Val had to swallow a smile. Erick looked like a member of any of her favorite metal bands: blond hair reaching his waist, pale white skin, stubble, a long aquiline nose and deep-set eyes. The resemblance made them call him Norseasterner, Norse like his Norwegian father, and north-easterner Brazilian like his accent and his mother.

“Maybe,” she agreed, looking at the floor and recalling the kind of thing Ms. Tereza said the night before. “The worst thing is that I can’t even move when it happens.”

“Ox, ox, ox…” Camila began to sing loudly in the corridor. The three looked back, and saw her carrying a bottle of Pepsi and two bars of chocolate. “Black-faced ox…”

“Stop it,” Val muttered. “I’m not scared of a nursery rhyme. It’s a serious health condition.”

“Take this girl who’s afraid of…” Camila stopped, staring at the ceiling. “How does the song ends?”

“If, by any chance, it’s a spirit who knows rhymes, you shouldn’t be afraid.” Lucas ignored Camila, and picked a purple marker pen to draw on Val’s caster. “Spirits are not evil. Besides, you’re not afraid of that kinda stuff. Or of anything. I think.”

“Yeah, you’re the coolest,” Erick agreed, pouring soda into four cups. The smell of cigarette coming from him bothered her, but she didn’t complain. “I mean, you’re the one who fell down the escalator, broke half of your body, and got up to take a selfie.

“It’s not the same thing,” Val argued, grateful for the curls hiding her face. “If it is a spirit, the lyrics say take this girl who’s afraid of grimaces, take this boy who won’t sleep. Which is bad for me.”

“First of all, there’s no fucking way that’s a ghost.” Camila sat by her side, leaving the bowl between Val’s legs. “Second, it would be bad for a boy, right? It doesn’t count. But if you are afraid of grimaces…”

Val looked at them. Three pairs of eyes of different colors, pitch black, light green, medium brown, all patient, all warm.

She smiled.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

At night, while her mother worked, Val found herself alone in the house one more time. In the living room, portraits grinned at her: dad, short and stout, hugging mom from behind, and a picture of her as a child, bald and wearing a fake jersey of the Brazilian team during the 1998 World Cup. There was also a doll made of cold porcelain of a nurse holding a large syringe, given by one of mom’s patients.

She turned off the lights: bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, bedroom. I will sleep just fine today, she told herself, wearing a baggy t-shirt with the name of a politician. She slept when dad was home, she would sleep now.

Val stuffed a pillowcase with two cushions and laid down, covering herself with the blue blanket. I’m safe. I’m not a boy. I’m not afraid.

Fragments of her day merged into each other in a confusing jigsaw. Her dad’s smile, the nurse’s syringe, the cracked paint of the walls, the stripes of the sofa. Camila yelling because they were going to see Placebo on stage in 28 days. Erick’s fingers brushing against hers when nobody noticed. Lucas’ hoodie, forgotten near the popcorn bowl. She needed to return it…

Something collided against her skinny chest. The pressure turned into pain, and she could no longer breathe. It was like having a hand clutching her throat and someone’s weight squeezing her torso, and then silence, only silence.

Val opened her eyes. The room was dark. The stabilizer under her desk blinked its green light. Her arms were frozen, her legs prickled. And, in front of the door, the ox awaited.

Ox, ox, ox—someone sang, a distant voice, an adult woman, maybe mom—black-faced ox—a guttural, chilling bellow. I want to sleep. Tears ran down her cheeks. I’m not a boy. The ox glared at her with its ravenous face, its lifeless eyes.

Take this girl who’s afraid of—

Val shut her eyes tight, and the ox breathed against her face. Still here, he said, and Val woke up again.


H. Pueyo is an Argentine-Brazilian writer and translator who used to be a goth in her teen years. You can find her online on Twitter or visit her portfolio.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator and comic artist from Southern Brazil who was never a goth, but used to be a bit of an emo. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter, or visit his portfolio.

Our posts are 100% Patreon funded! If you want to see early posts, full resolution art, and WIPs, please consider supporting us on Patreon!

 

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